Host St. Paul’s ended its regular season with a thrilling 55-54 victory over Dulaney, but it was much bigger than a tough tune-up against a local public school rival for the IAAM B Conference basketball tournament which starts on Friday, Feb. 9.
This was senior night for Grace Boyce and Sophia Watkinson who came into the program together as freshmen on the varsity.
“It’s our last home game and we are best friends and we’ve been best friends since freshman year, so it’s kind of sad to see each other go, but it is exciting and our whole team was so supportive and that helps ease the nerves and we have confidence in each other and in ourselves,” said Boyce, who had two points and two assists in the first quarter.
Watkinson had the first two points of the game, with 40 seconds elapsed, and she finished with 17 points.
St. Paul’s coach Pat Conrad, whose squad improved to 11-6, praised the experienced duo for what they gave to the program.
“Unbelievable careers,” he said. “Their leadership just really solidifies the program. They’ve been on varsity for four years and we’ve had an influx of new players, players leave, players go, but the one constant is Grace and Sophia on the team every single year.”
They were honored with kind words from their coach and teammates before the game and then went out and battled for loose balls, mixed it up on the boards and made critical shots.
“They understand what it means to be a Gator, hard work, hustle, never-quit attitude and they really kind of helped the team get into the right culture as they came into the program,” Conrad said.
Boyce and Watkinson knew the feeling of being the new kids on the court and they welcomed the challenge to give back as they grew with the program.
“Coming on the team as freshmen and being on a team with seven seniors was intimidating a little bit at first, but I think for us, they set such an amazing culture that they made us feel so welcome and I know for me ever since, we’ve been trying to maintain that culture and take what they gave to us and give that to the younger girls that come in,” Watkinson said.
It seems to have worked for the Gators, who have two juniors and five sophomores in addition to the two seniors.
The Gators were led by sophomore Alex Sawyers who scored a game-high 19 points.
Dulaney was led by freshman Samantha White (15 points) and senior Akirra Pullen (13).
Pullen did most of her damage in the first half, when she scored six of her 10 points on putbacks.
Dulaney’s Pullen, Lydia Naughton and Julia Whatley controlled the glass for most of the game.
“We definitely got the shots, but we missed a ton of shots in the paint though, but rebounding has been our strength all year,” Dulaney coach Jessica Szymanski said. “Akirra, Lyd, Julia, it doesn’t really matter who is in, they crash the boards hard.”
Dulaney turned an 18-17 lead into a 24-17 advantage late in the first half on baskets by Naughton, White and Pullen, but the Gators closed the half with a 6-1 run on three-pointers by Sawyers and Watkinson.
White scored 10 points in the third quarter and reserves Riley McWilliams and Gabrielle Knight made three-pointers and the Lions had a six-point lead early in the fourth quarter.
Sawyers made a trey from the top of the key and Ava Wax canned a three-pointer with 5:14 remaining to tie the score at 43-43.
A three-pointer by White was answered with a trey from Sawyers and the game was deadlocked at 46-46 with 3:27 left.
A technical free throw by Watkinson pushed the Gators ahead by one, with 3:12 remaining, and Sawyers scored with 3:00 left, making it 49-46.
Dulaney’s Mikaela Romero escaped for a layup and the Lions trailed, 49-48 with 2:50 to go, but Watkinson responded and the lead was three, 51-48, with 2:05 left.
Dulaney refused to go away and Naughton cut the deficit to 51-50 on a left-handed layup with 1:51 left.
A minute later, Sawyers made the key offensive play of the game when she drove the lane and floated a five-footer into the basket, while getting fouled in the act.
Her free throw put the Gators ahead, 54-50.
Naughton’s two free throws cut the lead to 54-52 with 41 seconds left and, when Naughton drew a charge, the Lions had a chance to tie.
But a turnover led to a free throw by Sawyers and 55-52 lead with eight seconds left.
After a long pass deflected off the Gators, the Lions had one last chance after Watkinson fouled McWilliams on a three-point attempt with 1.5 seconds left.
McWilliams made the last two free throws and the Gators inbounded the ball and secured the 55-54 victory.
Coach Conrad praised his senior Watkinson, even though the plays down the stretch didn’t go her way.
“I want my girls to get a charge call every game because if it doesn’t happen you are not being aggressive, but the girl made a good defensive play, so I can’t complain about that,” Conrad said.
Watkinson fouled out on the three-point attempt, but was confident on the bench.
“There wasn’t a doubt in my mind that we were going to still win that game,” Watkinson said.
Dulaney coach Szymanski hopes to use the close loss as a learning tool for the 12-4 Lions.
“This was definitely a good game for us,” she said. “The team is a little bit down, losing by one is tough, but at the end of the day, it’s a game, it’s a private school and it was super competitive.”
The Lions still have seven games remaining before the regional playoffs, including one scheduled against Pikesville on Wednesday and two games against Towson and one at Hereford.
“We’ve got some big games coming up,” Szymanski said. “This will definitely prepare us for the playoffs.”
The Lions certainly made an impression on Boyce.
“I really have to give Dulaney a lot of credit. They are a very, very, good team,” Boyce said.
But, when she looks back, it will be her Gator teammates she remembers the most from senior night.
“I’m just excited,” Boyce said. “It’s really hard to see four years of commitment come to an end, and friendship and teammates come to an end, but it’s also exciting to pull out a win.”